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Leadership 101: Are leaders born or made?

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By W. Thomas Smith Jr. 

Are leaders born or made? Should we even be asking the question?

We often talk about natural or “born leaders.” And there are persons with innate leadership traits to be sure. But no leader worth his or her salt exists without training and conditioning. And no leader will ever grow without experience and, yes, refining in the furnace of challenge and crisis.

So let’s get to the question, or – if you will – the debate. Perhaps there are variables that suggest some leaders are born to lead. But according to at least one expert, the born-vs.-made debate is fraught with problems for both those who will be led and the organization as a whole; and we’ll address those problems in a bit.


We first begin to recognize leaders among our contemporaries as children in the schoolyard. Always there are one or two kids who immediately “assume command.” For them, leadership seems so effortless. That’s because children who lead are indeed born-leaders for lack of a better term. At the schoolyard level, that’s all they really can be. But the child-leader is born-to-lead only in a primal and frequently very temporary sense.

The child-leader is almost always the one imbued with the greatest spirit of adventure and daring. He is often the best-looking, the most-athletic, and the quickest-thinking (though not necessarily the most intellectually gifted) kid on the playground. The child-leader is usually, though not always, a boy (for reasons that will be more evident momentarily). And the child-leader seems to demonstrate a form of leadership that is innate and natural. But that naturalness has little to do with the child’s leadership skills. It is more a product of the fact that the child-leader is blessed with certain charismatic gifts beyond those of his peers.

Moreover, most of the other children – unsure of themselves in environs beyond their own backyards and neighborhoods – have a far greater desire to conform than to lead. They have not yet learned to tap into their own gifts. And it is much easier to follow than it is to accept responsibility in any form.

But as I’ve said, the child-as-leader is only a temporary phenomenon.

The child-leader retains his command only to the point of the first crisis; someone gets hurt or sick, or a rock or a baseball breaks a window. That’s when the absolute authority – the teacher, the yard mother, or any other nearby responsible adult – takes command.

As the child-leader moves into young adulthood, however, the debate-focus shifts to include the followers, a greater appreciation for some of the innate characteristics we might find in the child-follower, and a look-see at what happens in the leadership-development pipeline (and not just on the front-end).


Leadership expert Dr. Ronald E. Riggio says the born vs. made debate is actually a little “dangerous.”

Writing for Psychology Today, Riggio – who has written a number of books and scholarly pieces on the subject – says, “The answer is that executives who believe that leaders are born, give less attention to leader development, both their own personal development as well the development of those they lead. They are focused on selecting leaders with the ‘right stuff,’ and expecting that those leaders’ natural abilities will mean organizational success. But nothing could be further from the truth.”

Riggio adds, “Sure, selection is important, but good leader development efforts are more important.”

Yet in a struggling economy, leadership-development programs are usually among the first to get the axe.

“It’s usually more cost-effective to grow your company’s leaders in-house rather than focusing on hiring the proven (and born) leaders from outside,” he says. “So greater, not fewer, resources should go into leader development.”


Another reason the born vs. made question is “dangerous,” says Riggio lies in the fact that innate – or so-called born – leadership qualities may only surface through a period of conditioning.

Riggio points to a study conducted wherein his research team examined “the relationship between extraversion and leader emergence in a longitudinal sample of ordinary people.” What the study determined was that extraverts demonstrated greater leadership “potential” than introverts, especially on the front end of the leadership pipeline. But when the study looked at social skills – which most of us rightly assume are skills mastered through grooming and conditioning – only those extraverts who had mastered the social skills emerged as leaders. Therefore, extraversion – though it may be an in-born leadership advantage – is no real advantage unless the extravert also develops the ability to communicate effectively.

In other words, a person may be an extraverted, outgoing, life-of-the-party type – and that personality trait may have served them well as a child-leader in the schoolyard – but that same trait will do nothing for the individual as a leader on the battlefield or in the boardroom unless the person also has been taught to speak and otherwise communicate with great effect and authority. And that’s just one piece of it.


None of this is to suggest that introverts have no chance of becoming leaders? They do. In fact, introverts – though they may not attract as much attention on the front-end of the pipeline as their extraverted brethren – have their own quiet tools which extraverts would do well to acquire.

Just like extraverts are generally praised for their energy, assertiveness, risk-taking, and surges of emotion, adrenaline, and explosive creativity (and yes, these traits count just as much on the back-end of the pipeline as they do on the front-end); there also are lots of traits generally associated with introverts that are critical characteristics for any good leader.

Traits normally associated with introverts include the myriad intellectual gifts, as well as social intelligence, emotional stability, temperance, responsibility, empathy, and the seemingly innate ability to always put others ahead of oneself. Aha! We’re getting back to the great military leadership maxim I’m constantly referring to – The mission first. Then the men (or the men always). Lastly, me.

To boil it all down, most experts will tell you that real leaders are made not born, and the proof of this lies within the world’s greatest leaders, most of whom became leaders through some measure of conditioning and experience.

Sure, there are guys and gals genetically gifted with more charisma and greater daring than their peers. But far too often these guys and gals never build on what God has given them. They have too much for their egos to handle on the front end, and are spoiled by it. They put themselves ahead of others because they wrongly see themselves as being superior to others. And because they don’t make the effort to develop within themselves that which they don’t yet have – because they think they already have it all – they are destined for a life of mediocrity and unfulfilled dreams.

Stay with us. There’s so much more, including a great deal more on leadership development and the born vs. made debate. Previous Leadership 101 pieces are available here. If you have questions or suggestions, I’m at
W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor who writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. He directs the U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. Smith’s website is